Review of What It Is Like, by Charles North. Jointly published by Turtle Point Press (New York, NY) and Hanging Loose Press (Brooklyn, NY), 2011. ISBN:978-1-933527-48-2, 303 pp. $20.00 paperback.
When I try to read Charles North’s poems as straightforwardly as I do those of, say, W.H. Auden, I get hopelessly lost. When I set aside the need for immediate, concrete meaning and simply relax and let the poem take me wherever it will, I am by turns amused, appreciative, instructed, and charmed. What It Is Like, North’s new and selected poems contains poems published over the past 38 years. A list of the titles would itself make an interesting poem: “The Philosophy of New Jersey,” “Sunrise With Sea Monster,” “French Notebook Threatened By Writing,” “You Don’t Want To Live In Elsinore,” and “Typing And Typing In The Wandering Countryside,” to name but a few.
North’s knowledge of English and American poetry is profound, and allusions to earlier poets are scattered throughout his poetry, sometimes as deadpan quotations, sometimes as outright parody by means of appropriation, as in “Words From Robert W. Service”:
I’m not so wise as the lawyer guys, but strictly between us two
I’m the Steinway of strange mischief. We’re all brutes more or less.
Then you’ve a hunch what the music meant . . . hunger and night and
All honey-combed, the river ice was rotting down below.
[from “Words From Robert W. Service,” p. 186]
Wit and willfulness are never far away in North’s poetry. What seems an arbitrary yoking together of opposites, a time-honored Surrealist trick, collapses in his hands into an offbeat love poem:
Smarter than morons are you
Shorter than giants
More reliable than bail-jumpers
Defter than those who are all thumbs
You are nicer than villains
Stabler that those with bipolar illness
[from “The Nearness of the Way You Look Tonight,” p. 162]
Indeed, all of North’s poems play with language in a challenging manner, whether the challenge is to sense or syntax. In “Shooting For Line,” North makes each line bear two meanings of the same verb:
To break the silence or your newly acquired Ming vase,
or raise my expectations and the flag over the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
To employ a veritable army of secretaries, or your for once awake faculties
in coming to grips with the enemy, the notion that nothing outlasts our fleeting
perception of it
[from “Shooting for Line,” p. 122]
And so on for eight pages astonishing in their virtuosity. North studied as a young man with Kenneth Koch and has much of his master’s humor, but he links it to a sensibility with a decidedly philosophical bent. Even in North’s wildest flights of abstraction, a detail from the natural world or a wry joke is likely to make an appearance, keeping the poem from floating off into some Platonic ideal. One of his most funniest poems, “Boul’ Mich” lets both sides of his poetic personality fight it out, as it takes the form of a session between an earnest interviewer asking questions about poetic theory and a wise-guy interviewee determined to turn every answer into a joke.
You’re in print about the connections between
poetry and bowling. Perhaps you’d like to comment further
on what you once characterized as “strikes, spares, splits
and the heartbreak of the gutter ball.” It was the Boul’ Mich,
wasn’t it, where you spent so much time as an 11- and 12-year old?
I always thought that was a clever name for a bowling alley.
Are you sure you’re not referring to the time
I was talking about poetry and bowing? [laughs] Arco,
pizzicato, sostenuto, playing with all 13 strings or however many
there are? [laughs] Come to think of it,
the Boeing idea isn’t so bad either, flying away on the “viewless wings
of poesy.” I’ll leave the ailerons and Fasten Your Seatbelts signs to you. [laughs]
[from “Boul’ Mich,” p. 215]
Whether he’s writing a prose poem comparing the tragic flaws of Prometheus and Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski -- “Prometheus literally (or semi-literally) and Yastrzemski figuratively are chained to their errors-cum-excellence: in Prometheus’ case a strong sense of Self tinted by a rather stubborn self-righteousness (mitigated, it must be said, by the encouraging knowledge that he will live to see his tormentor’s downfall); in Yastrzemski’s case an unreliably expanded Self-image, possibly helped along by an inflated salary.” -- [from “Prometheus at Fenway,” page 76] or constructing a modernist poem in the form of Anglo-Saxon kennings, North is one of the most challenging, amusing, and accomplished poets writing today.